They gathered close to the corpse discarded in the trash behind a dumpster. A gray sky rained slowly on their bowed heads and entwined fingers, lips silent in memory of a man they knew no one else would bother to grieve for. Dylan glanced upwards, towards the rain and the long stretch of grungy bricks reaching up five stories, every window closed, even the traffic behind them muted by the watery roads, as if to offer them a moment of peace to mourn the loss.
“Going to get a cold,” Neal said, coughed for good measure, before kneeling down and pulling out a pocketknife. Dylan tilted his head and stared at the red still stained along the side of Milton Rance’s head where blood had poured from his ears. The rain had nearly washed it all away. He watched Neal cut at the base of Milton’s ear until he tore it off and wrapped it in a handkerchief.
Neal pulled himself up and motioned with his head for the two to leave. Dylan followed in silence; head low against the bitter wind foretelling a vicious winter ahead. They stepped through the library door and avoided the glare of the librarian. Unlike some of the other employees, Lenore wouldn’t actually throw them out; merely express her contempt through her eyes.
“You saw it from his ears?” Neal asked as he pulled off his wet coat and hung it across the chair. Dylan nodded and made no motion to remove his own. “You’ll get sick that way,” Neal said.
“I still don’t believe it,” Dylan said.
“You’ve been here seven months. I’ve clocked three years. It’s always running from the ears and I’ve never seen another means of death.”
“People would find out.”
Neal leaned in closer, his head low as he held Dylan’s gaze. “Three years, okay? Trust me, people don’t care.”
He pulled back and folded his arms, stared at the rain running down the windows. Dylan looked beyond Neal to the people milling around the library, and saw in his mind Milton’s upturned face, discarded in the trash.
Dylan Wilczewski lowered himself slowly into a life on the streets over the course of thirty-two years. He had no bright future he had failed to attain or family he had let down. His father was abusive only through neglect, and at the age of seventeen Dylan left his father’s trailer and set out on his own.
He rarely ventured far from his birthplace in western New Hampshire, only daring to travel fifty or so miles in any given direction before eventually making his way back. Lack of ambition rather than drug or alcohol use allowed him to be comfortable working lower and lower paying jobs, until he lost interest in even them, and left his apartment behind rather than be officially evicted.
Within this world he had stumbled across the gangly Neal McMullan, a man twenty years Dylan’s senior, and well acquainted with poverty. He’d roamed the streets of over twelve states, he’d often boast, looking out for the others who weren’t as well equipped for such a life, but had finally found what he considered his permanent home.
The only homeless shelter in the city was buried in a maze of aged buildings from a time of industrial labor. Just a door along a brick wall and a faded sign marked the structure. Dylan had been searching for it in the early spring when he met Neal. Two hours of walking past boarded windows and back alleyways covered in graffiti warning of violence had ended a block from the shelter.
“Hey,” Neal had called over from a patch of shade in a doorway. Dylan waited for the man to rise, to step out into the harsh sunlight, skin deeply tanned unlike Dylan’s burning face. “Looking for the shelter, aren’t you?”
“Know where it is?”
Neal had placed an arm around Dylan’s shoulder and led him to the shade. “I wouldn’t go to the shelter,” he had said.
They didn’t force Lenore to kick them out of the library at nine when it closed. On other nights when Neal was feeling bitter, he’d motion for Dylan to stay, and the two would eye her scornfully when she approached, if only to make her uncomfortable.
“A homeless man attacked her once,” Neal had confided when he’d first shown Dylan the library. “Scared her badly.”
Dylan could never muster the same joy in causing misery that Neal relished in, and was glad Milton’s passing had placed Neal in a more somber mood. He’d always found it an odd parallel of Neal’s kindness to his fellow bums while hating everyone else.
The rain hadn’t turned into snow, as some forecasters had predicted, but the ground still hardened with thin ice, and the wind slipped easily through Dylan’s damp clothing. They walked three blocks through the evening traffic, coats pulled tight for warmth, until they ducked into the parking lot of an apartment complex and Neal held open the basement window for Dylan to enter.
“Who needs a shelter anyways,” Neal muttered when they closed the window and turned towards the disheveled storage room. Every so often they’d find a few pieces of broken furniture moved around or taken away, but the tenants rarely entered the room, and never at night.
Dylan lit a candle in the middle of the room while Neal reached behind a splintered dresser, face reddened from the strain, until he smiled and pulled back with the sack in his hand.
He took up a seat by the candle and Dylan watched his friend pull out a metal bowl from the bag along with some lighter fluid and a book of matches. He pulled the handkerchief from his pocket and held up the severed ear, almost in awe of it, Dylan thought, and felt his own gaze lowering.
He’d seen it done before, Neal’s symbolic cremation for the dead, and didn’t say a word as Neal placed the ear into the bowl and used the fluid to set it aflame. “A little more heat won’t hurt,” Neal said with a thin smile amid a mess of graying hair.
The cooking skin smelled good to Dylan. He frowned at himself for the thought, attention turned to the small bags of ashes Neal pulled out and set down in a line in front of him. He counted them carefully. “Nine once I add Milton,” he said.
“Doesn’t prove it,” Dylan said.
“Yeah, well I don’t see you clamoring to go there anymore,” Neal shot back as he scooped up the bags and threw them in the sack.
“Like you said, we’ve got a place.”
“What exactly do you think they’re doing to the people, and why?”
Neal leaned back and stared at the melting ear, his face alit with the fire’s glow. “I’ve met a lot of vile people over the years. Only three on the streets around these parts, but I’ve got sixteen years under my belt in all. Weak men trying to stand above anyone they can. Who knows why, but I watched Don Heilmann walk into that place no more than two weeks after I arrived here. Would’ve gone myself had they not had a no alcohol rule, or so he told me, and I never saw the man again, least not alive.
“Never would’ve met a friendlier man then Don. Nothing could bring that son of bitch’s spirits down.”
“Had he been there before?” Dylan asked, cross-legged as he leaned in.
“Not that I know of, but he didn’t really say, just told me it was there and he was going. Found him washed up along the river in the middle of the summer. Bugs had gotten to him, probably near two weeks since I’d last seen him. Don’t have his ashes, nor do I for Ervin Heffern, but I’ve got the rest.”
“You ever go to the police?”
Neal snorted and stretched out on the cement. “Cops will take you there is what they do. They find someone on the streets they take them to the shelter, simple as that. I’ve seen it happen, and I’ve seen the bodies in the streets afterwards. Get some sleep. Go without it and you’re just asking for a cold.”
Dylan pulled off his damp coat and used it for a pillow. Beside him Neal started to snore, occasionally coughing and muttering in his sleep. Dylan watched the ear’s flame slowly dying as his own eyes closed.
He dreamt of Milton’s long, empty face. The man had clearly been mentally challenged in some way, and had refused to join them when Neal extended his offer. Dylan had stood next to his mentor on the cold street corner where they’d seen Milton begging, a cardboard sign around his neck and a cup of change at his feet.
“Just don’t go to the shelter,” Neal had said, and Milton’s face had scrunched up.
“Think I’m stupid?” Milton had shouted, “You can’t trick me. I know where I’m supposed to go.”
The second his voice rose Neal shoved Dylan along, down a back alley, and away from Milton’s cries. “Laws against begging. Police will get him,” he had whispered, and Dylan had glanced back down the long alley to see Milton on the sidewalk, still shouting after them.
In the entire time Dylan had followed behind Neal, they’d only encountered two other homeless people. One had been Milton Rance, and the other had refused to speak to them, clearly displeased at being considered their equal. Neal had tried only briefly to get the other man to talk before giving up and moving on. They’d never seen him again, alive or dead, though Neal had spent a few weeks searching for a corpse.
“They get most the homeless before you’ll ever see them,” Neal would say, using the lack of them as proof of the shelter’s evil.
Dylan waited until early November to slip out of the storeroom at two in the morning. Neal slept through his departure and trek through the frozen streets, his two coats pulled tightly closed and a scarf wrapped around most of his head. He walked with as much purpose as he could, but still found himself ducking behind corners when the occasional police car drove slowly through the slick roads.
He walked until he reached the unassuming façade of the homeless shelter, the only light built above the door turned off. Aside from the very first glimpse in the summer he had never traveled back here. Neal always refused. Now Dylan walked around the building, down an alleyway, and moved towards the back end, but without any decent markings, he couldn’t even tell if this was still the shelter. The large structure it was apart of housed several businesses.
“They couldn’t get away with it,” he whispered, but something in him couldn’t let go of Neal’s certainty. Still, he also wanted to refuse to accept the truth that such blatant human cruelty could exist in a city he’d known all his life.
There were no windows for him to look through, no doors that budged when he hesitantly rattled the knobs. He returned to that single door with the faded sign and light bulb above it.
The sun crept through the thin clouds by the time Dylan slipped back into the storeroom and found Neal sitting up, waiting for him. “I just wanted to see if I could find anything,” Dylan told him.
Neal packed up his things without looking over. “You go there again and we’re through. People see you snooping around they might think you know something. We can’t risk them even looking at us.”
“Why don’t you just leave here? You’ve been around.”
Neal straightened up. “And leave men like you to die in there? I’ve got some sense of honor. You aren’t the only one I’ve stopped, just the most recent. Even if I can’t save them, at least someone can be around to pay respect to the dead.”
He shoved the sack behind the dresser and pulled himself out of the window into the early morning. Dylan followed in silence.
By mid-December the ground was covered in snow. It fell for two weeks straight, the air alive with dancing white. Stepping outside meant withstanding the bitter wind. They retreated to the storeroom earlier each night and only left when the ceiling creaked with feet in the morning.
On the 20th they knelt before the window and Neal lifted up the new padlock holding the window in place.
“Break the glass?” Dylan asked.
“Tonight, yeah, but then we’re gone,” Neal said. “Need to find someplace new.”
That night they listened to the wind howl through the window and felt the icy air fill the room. Though he didn’t say anything, Dylan could see the tremors running through Neal in the morning, the snot dribbling down his upper lip. He turned away from Dylan each time he coughed, as if to hide it, and Dylan pretended that he didn’t see.
They left the room with Neal’s bag slung over Dylan’s shoulder and walked through the frigid streets in search of another home. Few businesses tolerated their presence for long when they ducked inside for a reprieve from the wind, and at the first sign of trouble Neal motioned for them to go, even though his cough grew worse with each hour.
“Maybe a movie theater?” Dylan offered.
Neal shook his head, wiped mucus from his reddened nose. “Need something for the night, not right now.”
“And if we can’t find anything?”
“We find an alley. I’ve done it before. I can do it again.”
Dylan believed the resolve, but questioned whether age had finally caught up to Neal. He almost suggested the ER, but knew Neal’s answer, and so when the sun sank and they were no closer to any protection from the cold, they found a dumpster below an overhang and buried themselves behind it.
In that pile of filth Dylan stumbled across their first bit of luck and held up a ten-dollar bill.
“Food for us,” Neal said.
Dylan pulled himself up. “I’ll get some for you, along with some medicine. You know you need it.” He was nearly to the mouth of the alley when he heard Neal pulling himself up to follow. “You stay here. I’ll be back.”
He saw the argument on Neal’s lips, the refusal to admit any limitations, to yield his status as leader, but his eyes lowered and he slumped back against the wall. “Fine,” he said, though he didn’t return to the dumpster, waiting by the sidewalk instead as Dylan hurried across the street.
By the time he had purchased some cold medicine along with a sandwich from a convenience store, a cop car had pulled up to the mouth of the alley, the lights slowly splashing red and blue into the night. He froze rather than approach, and even from across the street he could hear Neal shouting in protest.
“I’m fine. Can’t a man stand around a sidewalk at night?”
The officers were talking to him, trying to calm him, and Dylan started to move closer when he saw Neal’s eyes lock with his. His head slowly shook no before his attention returned to the men, making sure they didn’t see Dylan.
“I just want to go home, okay?” Neal told them. “Look, I’m going to go right now.”
They wouldn’t let him leave, saw clearly through the lie, blocking him in, voices still low and reassuring. One grabbed hold of Neal’s arm to direct him to the car but Neal jerked it away. “I’m not,” he began to say before the officers tried to grab him more forcefully. They pulled his screaming form towards the open back door to the cruiser, and Dylan couldn’t make himself move closer, fingers squeezing down tightly on the sandwich and the box of medicine.
A gunshot cracked loudly and drew others from the few open stores. One of the officers went down, crying out, hands grabbing hold of his bleeding leg. Neal pulled away from the other cop with the officer’s gun in his hand. “I’m just going to walk away,” Neal screamed, his arms shaking, tears running down red cheeks. “You aren’t taking me to the shelter. I’m not going there.”
He turned to run, and immediately the other officer had his gun out. Dylan did nothing as the shots tore through Neal’s back and ripped out of his chest. He collapsed into the snow, body jerking, and eyes staring blankly at the street. The officer inched closer with his gun drawn.
Dylan let the box and sandwich drop into the gutter as he turned and walked away.
He sat in the ER waiting room and stared absently up at the TV built into the corner. A nurse slowly approached him. “Are you,” she began.
“Waiting on a friend being seen,” he said, and she left, but he saw the disbelief in her eyes. She wouldn’t leave him alone for long.
They hadn’t taken Neal to the hospital. There hadn’t been any reason to. Dylan sat back in the warmth and pulled open the sack Neal had bestowed upon him. He lifted up the bags of ashes and rolled them around in his fingers.
Movement caught his eye and he placed them back as the nurse returned with a security guard standing next to her. Dylan pulled himself up. “You aren’t waiting on anyone, are you?” the guard asked him.
“I’ll leave,” Dylan said.
“It’s below zero out there,” the nurse said.
Dylan glanced at the sliding glass doors and the blowing snow beyond them. “Bet it is.”
“I’m afraid I can’t just send you out there. You might not live through the night.”
“Then I can stay?” he said, but saw in their eyes that wasn’t the answer, and for the first time the fear clenched in his stomach.
“You can go to the homeless shelter. It’s only a few blocks over.”
He tried to run for the door. The guard had seen it coming and grabbed hold of him before he could.
“I’m not going,” Dylan screamed. He tried and failed to break the guard’s grip; hand groping uselessly towards the door while movement came from the ER. He couldn’t say if it was the nurse or someone else who stuck the syringe in his arm, but his mind swam, muscles rubber. The warm room drifted away from him.
He awoke to a cold wind. The officers who pulled him out of the car and dragged him towards the shelter’s door didn’t realize he was awake. Dylan remained limp when the door opened and the world went dark again.
Overhead lights flickered on, four lines of them in all, revealing a larger room filled with tables, chairs, and cots along the back wall. They set him down in one of the cots and walked towards the front. Dylan could see an older woman by the door talking to the officers. They all glanced over at Dylan, pausing, perhaps aware he was awake, but they didn’t move closer.
He kept his eyes squinted shut when the two officers left. The woman went behind a counter, rummaging around, humming a tune Dylan couldn’t place. When she emerged she had a blanket in her hand, along with a small bag.
Her feet tapped lightly across the tiled floor. She leaned over, began to cover him with the blanket, but Dylan moved before she could. She cried out in surprise and stumbled back as Dylan lurched upward. He watched her fall, head colliding harshly with the floor. He fell on top of her before she could move and struck her as hard as he could. She went limp beneath him.
Panting, on the verge of hyperventilating, Dylan jerked his head around the room. He saw nothing dangerous, nothing abnormal, only a coffee maker, trays, and cups. He grabbed the black bag she’d brought with her, but it had a lock on the top that held when he tried to pull it open.
His eyes fell to the woman and the trickle of blood running from beneath her head. She still breathed rhythmically. He could search her pockets for a key, but fear drove him away from her and the bag.
He hurried across the room and pulled open the front door, stopping only to grab Neal’s sack. He ran down the snowy streets, running for well over an hour before the exhaustion took hold, and he collapsed into sleep beneath an overpass. He dreamt of the homeless shelter, and whatever nameless horrors Neal had spent three years in fear of.
For two weeks Dylan hid from every police officer he could. Time eased his fear of the unknown, and he found himself drifting closer to downtown and the shelter, waiting to see someone enter it and come out alive.
He slept in doorways, behind dumpsters, overhangs, and parking garages. He emptied nine small bags of ashes into the frozen river and threw Neal’s sack into a trashcan.
Two and half weeks after Neal’s death Dylan walked through a deserted alley four blocks from the shelter and began digging out a corner to sleep for the night. He almost didn’t find it, just a little to the right of where he worked, but his fingers brushed across the icy flesh.
He threw away the boxes, cans, and bottles until he had uncovered the corpse and pulled back to take it in. He stared at the woman from the shelter, her head turned to the side, glassy eyes frozen and staring upward, clothing glued to her body from the cold. He knelt down and saw the streaks of red running down the side of her neck from her ears.
“I didn’t hit her that hard,” he whispered. Right beneath her he caught sight of something black, and pulled loose the unlocked, empty bag. He tossed it onto the body and turned away from her.
Dylan lowered his head and whispered a prayer to Neal. He asked for forgiveness for having doubted the man, and for failing to live up to the standards the man had set. He didn’t care if others walked unknowingly into that building. Dylan couldn’t bring himself to continue what Neal had started. He left whatever faith he’d once had in the city of his birth behind him in the alley with the woman’s corpse.
After two hours along the side of the highway a car finally pulled to the side of the road and Dylan stepped inside.
This story and all materials on this site are © Philip M. Roberts. All Rights Reserved.